In this new series, we take a look at some of the most famous pioneers of computing and cybersecurity. In this first part, we focus on the ‘father’ of computers; Charles Babbage.
Born 26th December 1791 in London Charles Babbage was the son of a banker and was a sickly child. At the age of 8, he suffered from a life-threatening fever that resulted in him being sent away from the city at the heart of the industrial revolution to the Devon countryside to recover. He attended King Edward VI Grammar school in Totnes but regularly missed lessons due to his ill health. This lack of attendance led to him having several private tutors. To his teachers, it was clear he had a natural affinity for mathematics.
In 1810, he arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was there that he became disillusioned with the standard of mathematical teaching available at the university. Along with several friends including John Herschel (the inventor of the blueprint), he formed the Analytical Society whose aim was to promote a different method of calculus from the one being taught by British universities at the time.
It was while he was at Cambridge that he first began to think about creating a machine that was capable of computing all tabular functions. This idea would eventually become his Difference Engine.
In 1814, he received a degree but did not graduate with honours. Instead, he received a degree without examination. This might have been because of his defence of a thesis that was deemed blasphemous. Despite that, he went onto to lecture astronomy at the Royal Institution and was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1816.
It wasn’t until 1822 that Charles began work on the Difference Engine, an early calculating machine that many consider to have verged on becoming the first computer. Unfortunately for Babbage, the machine was never finished following a falling out with precision engineer Joseph Clement over costs.
Even though the Difference Engine was never completed in his lifetime, Charles quickly moved onto designing a more complex pioneering machine called the Analytical Engine. This machine would incorporate an arithmetic logic unit, control flow and integrated memory, it is deemed to be the first design for a general-purpose computer and its logical structure is essentially the same as that used in modern day computers. It is because of this machine that Charles Babbage is considered the father of computing.
In 1833, Charles was introduced to Ada Lovelace and the two became close friends, with him describing her as ‘The Enchantress of Numbers’. She too was intrigued by Babbage’s Analytical Engine, whilst translating an article about the machine and thanks to her understanding of it, Charles asked her to expand the article. The final article ended up being three times longer than the original and contained what are considered to be the first computer programs.
Sadly, for Babbage, he never completed any of his machines due to a lack of funding and arguments with the engineers tasked with building them. It wouldn’t be until a century later in the 1930s that the first general purpose computers were built.
Charles Babbage died 18th October 1871 but his legacy is one that laid the groundwork for the computer-centric world we live in today.
In part two of this series, we look at Hedy Lamarr the famous Hollywood actress who helped invent Wi-Fi.